INDIANAPOLIS – A U.S. District court judge ruled Wednesday that Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores can take his discrimination cases against the NFL, Giants, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans to an open federal court in front of a jury.
“Plaintiffs’ descriptions of their experiences of racial discrimination — which allegedly are only the most recent chapter in the NFL’s long history of systematic discrimination toward Black players, coaches, and managers — are incredibly troubling,” U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni wrote in her decision.
Caproni’s ruling means plaintiffs’ attorneys will have the ability to conduct depositions under oath of relevant parties, potentially including the likes of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Giants head coach Brian Daboll in answer to Flores’ allegations against the Giants.
On a broader scale, the judge’s decision to allow the class action claims against the NFL for allegedly discriminatory hiring and firing practices to proceed in open court means potentially unprecedented exposure for the league and its clubs.
“Today the court determined that the claims against the NFL can remain in Federal Court where we can conduct discovery and litigate in a transparent forum,” plaintiffs attorney John Elefterakis said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to fight systemic discrimination against Black coaches in the NFL.”
Caproni did rule that some claims must be submitted to arbitration before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: Flores’ claims against the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ claims against the Arizona Cardinals, and USFL head coach Ray Horton’s claims against the Tennessee Titans.
But this ruling signifies progress towards transparency and, hopefully, change.
“We are pleased that Coach Flores’ class claims of systematic discrimination against the NFL and several teams will proceed in court and ultimately before a jury of his peers,” plaintiffs attorney Douglas H. Wigdor said in a statement.
“We are disappointed the court compelled arbitration of any claims before Mr. Goodell as he is obviously biased and unqualified to rule on these matters,” Wigdor added. “We expect him to delegate those matters to a truly neutral arbitrator as a matter of fundamental fairness. We look forward to pursuing all these claims to trial in their various forums.”
The NFL said in a statement from spokesman Brian McCarthy that the league is “pleased with the court’s decision” to compel several claims into arbitration and intends to “seek to dismiss the remaining claims.”
“Diversity and inclusion throughout the NFL make us a better organization,” the league’s statement read. “We recognize there is more work to be done and we are deeply committed to doing it. That said, we are pleased with the court’s decision, which correctly holds that the vast majority of claims in this case are properly arbitrable by the Commissioner under binding agreements signed by each plaintiff.
“We intend to move forward promptly with arbitrations as directed by the court and will seek to dismiss the remaining claims,” the NFL’s statement concluded.
A Giants spokesperson said the team had no comment on the ruling.
Flores’ lawsuit against the Giants alleges that the team gave him a sham interview for their head coaching vacancy in January 2022. Flores alleges that Belichick sent him a text message two days before his Giants interview that was really intended for Daboll: “I hear from Buffalo and NYG that you are their guy.”
Giants co-owner John Mara hasn’t held a media availability in almost a calendar year, but he said “the allegations are false” in March 2022 at the NFL owners’ meetings in Palm Beach, Fla.
“We’re very comfortable with our hiring process, and it was a fair process, and we ended up making the decision we made based on a lot of factors, none of which had to do with race,” Mara said last year.
Mara also said no one from the Giants, including Mara himself, had spoken to Belichick about the hiring process.
“I haven’t spoken or communicated with Bill since we played them in the preseason last summer,” Mara said last March, “and to my knowledge, nobody in our organization communicated with him.”
The league and clubs were trying to compel all of the claims and cases into arbitration. But Caproni ruled that the Giants and Texans “have failed to prove that an arbitration agreement was in effect when or after Mr. Flores was being considered for hire by those teams. Accordingly, Mr. Flores may litigate his claims against the Giants and Texans, and his related claims against the NFL, in federal court.
“Given the number of Black men who play and coach football,” Caproni added, “it is difficult to understand how it could be that, at the time Plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit, ‘the NFL had only one Black Head Coach.’”
Now the cases go to a court and a jury, and there is no telling how significant the repercussions could be for these teams and the league.
“We look forward to continuing to ‘shine an unflattering spotlight’ on the systemic discrimination against Black coaches in the NFL,” Elefterakis said.